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Jewish World Review May 25, 1999 /10 Sivan 5759

Bob Greene

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The lingering song of a certain summer

(JWR) ---- (
THE CLASSIFIED AD appeared in the Sunday Chicago Tribune during August of 1941:

"Will take two passengers to Los Angeles starting August 30th."

It was signed by a man named John Anderson, and it included his telephone number.

There is no way to tell how many Chicagoans read that ad that Sunday, but we can be sure of one who did: Agnes Frese, a young woman in her 20s who -- in that last summer before the United States entered World War II -- was feeling a strong sense of wanderlust.

She and her friend Jeanne Ogilvie wanted to get out of town, to see what America looked and felt like. As she would later record in her journal:

"Jeanne and I had tentatively decided to go on our vacations together and head in the general direction of Los Angeles. . . . .The eternal question `How can we do it in the least expensive way?' of course popped up. We decided if possible we would drive out a new car for an agency and come back by train. We watched the ads faithfully but nothing definite developed."

Then, on that August Sunday, there was the little ad from John Anderson.

From Agnes Frese's journal:

"At lunch on Monday Jeanne and I discussed the advisability of going in private cars. I figured we could lose nothing by investigating, and taking telephone in hand proceeded to get in touch with John Anderson. The telephone conversation was very satisfactory, and an appointment was set for Wednesday evening."

On that evening, "Jeanne came home to dinner with me. All through dinner we were surmising about what type of person we were about to meet. Dinner and dishes done, we anxiously awaited the arrival of Johnnie. First impressions have always meant quite a bit to me -- and this one was very good. Johnnie appeared to be an interesting gentleman. One of the first things he asked us was whether we had ever been West before. Both of us replied with a very definite `No!' "

And so the decision was made. Agnes Frese and Jeanne Ogilvie said they would share expenses with John Anderson and his friend Danny Rutledge on a motor trip from Chicago to Los Angeles and back.

What happened? We know exactly -- because when Agnes Frese died last year at the age of 84, living alone in Virginia Beach, Va., one of the things she left behind was a wooden photo album held together with metal hinges. In the album was a record of her trip during that summer before Pearl Harbor.

The album consists of color postcards, and news clippings, and black-and-white snapshots. There is page after page of her descriptions of the trip -- impeccably typed on onionskin sheets, not a detail omitted, as if she had promised herself to preserve something precious.

The trip was precious, all right. It was. . . .

Well, it was America -- America as the country existed in the days before coast-to-coast jetliners, before interstates that bypassed the towns and the people. It was America mile-by-mile -- and to read Agnes Frese's journal now that she is gone, to look at the photos she and her companions took, is to understand that seeing America the way she and Jeanne Ogilvie and John Anderson and Danny Rutledge did that certain summer is perhaps as long-gone a concept as that of seeing an ad in the paper, inviting the ad-placer over for dessert, and then heading with the ad-placer for California. Just because you want to.

"All at once Johnnie said, `What river is this?' Somebody replied, `Mississippi.' `Oh, the Mother of Rivers!' . . . We made a bee line through Iowa. . . . Over the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge into Blair, Nebraska." She recorded in the journal that the four of them sang as they drove: One man was a tenor, "and the rest of us chiming in." Nebraska was "very flat country. The land of the Midget Telephone Poles. Our dinner stop was Kearney, Nebraska. We stopped at a Duncan Hines recommended restaurant and had STEAKS, such as I have never tasted in my life -- but hope to again some day."

The Depression was a recent memory; the war would soon be a constant cloud over the land. This was a window -- a small, fleeting opportunity for a young woman to do something grand. In North Platte, Neb., they rented cabins at Craig's Tourist Home: "A lovely place. A nice warm bath -- soft, soft beds and wonderful sleep."

She's gone now; Agnes Frese is gone, and so are those days and nights she recorded. But that wooden-covered photo album remains, as does the story told on those onionskin pages. Small moments, kept forever. Late one evening: "Before we went to sleep we heard a very unusual laugh in the night."

You can't place a value on such things: on miles in search of whatever may be out there, and steaks that make you want more someday, and laughter from somewhere in the American night, somewhere you've never seen before.

We will continue our story soon.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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